As 25 year-old Whitney French flips through a copy of 3 Cities, her debut book, the sense of achievement is spelled out on her face. She wrote and edited the poems in the collection; she chose the weight of paper for the well-worn pages; she even applied for the ISBN number on the back. And although you won’t find 3 Cities in Chapters, French has succeeded without the monolithic bookstore chain.
“They don’t deal with self-published people,” French said. “It’s all right. I don’t even like ’em… As an independent bookseller, I want to work with independent bookstores. That’s how you create communities.”
In fact, although the Toronto-based writer retains a greater share of the profit from online sales, when people ask where to buy 3 Cities, she usually points them towards a local bookstore. But don’t mistake her bookstore advocacy for indifference towards the book’s success. There’s room in the self-publishing world for professional writers as well as DIY hobbyists. And although French sees herself as the former more than the latter, she doesn’t think there’s room for authors who are simply looking to make a quick buck off their writing.
“You have to put in a lot of work before you make any of the money,” she said. “A lot of people have a story and they want to just put it out and self-publish. For as much energy as you put into the product, there has to be equal or more energy put into pushing the product.”
Lyndall Musselman, a volunteer at the Toronto Zine Library (TZL), agrees that profit can’t be the primary goal for a self-publisher.
“It’s definitely reasonable and possible for zine-makers to break even and cover their production costs. I don’t, however, know if it’s reasonable to think that you’re going to make a profit,” she said.
Zines, for those unfamiliar with the term, are small, self-published works. They are usually reproduced with a photocopier and sold, traded or given away at fairs, book and record stores, or through mail-order “distros.” They became popular in the ’70s and ’80s but with the advent of the Internet in the ’90s, they faded from prominence. However, they continue to enjoy a small, but strong, following in the GTA and a big place in the hearts of self-publishers.
TZL aims to promote zines as a method of expression and communication. It has curated a broad collection of zines and regularly holds workshops and other events to further its cause.
For Harley R. Pageot, zine-making is a hobby. It allows him to write whatever he wants, put his own book together and share that book with a group of interested people.
“Even if I lose money publishing my zines, I weigh it against if I played hockey or I played guitar, I’d be spending a lot more money on equipment than I would on paper and staples.”
Pageot started the Broken Arts Distro in order to introduce his hometown of Oshawa to the culture of zines and the variety of independent works that exist throughout the world.
Although neither Pageot nor Musselman self-publish for professional reasons, they see the value of self-publishing for career-minded individuals.
“It’s a great way to spread your literature around and to share your work with other up-and-coming poets and writers,” Musselman said.
In fact, TZL recently held a poetry reading and almost all the poets brought along self-published works to sell and trade.
Pageot said that zines and other self-published works are sometimes gathered together for later publication.
“There’s also been a lot of cases where small presses and even larger publishing houses have come across these zines with bigger names and said, ‘This zine is really popular we could help to get it to a larger audience by collecting it into a book and getting it into bookstores,’” he said.
One of French’s pieces is currently being published in an anthology and she thinks that one day she will work on a big project with an external publisher. However, for now she is making use of the opportunities that self-publishing has presented her. She is helping others to get published and teaching workshops on writing and self-publishing.
“If you want to put out a book [just] to make money, in my definition that’s not a writer, that’s an author: somebody who has written a book,” French said. “A writer is devoting his or her life to creating writings and sharing that with people.”